Understanding Digital Black and White Photography: Inspiration and Cameras

Part 1: Inspiration and Cameras

Tim Savage is a photographer, artist, teacher and author. He works for the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham and also teaches at West Dean College. He has put together a series of blogs for us on his understandings of digital black and white photography, this being the first of three. For further information and technical advice visit the guides section of the Calumet website or pop into one of our stores for expert advice on taking black and white photos.

I began working as a photographer in 1998, which was pretty much right at the tipping point of when the newly emerging digital technologies became valid and comparable alternatives to their analogue equivalents. As I transitioned from silver halide to pixels throughout the 2000s I found myself increasingly feeling let down by the digital reproduction of black and white images.

More recently, technological advances have made it easier than ever for photographers to shoot, edit and share monochrome photographs though (for me at least) the power of the format can still become lost in the digital world: screen-based images lack physical authenticity, while inkjet prints can appear underwhelming and lifeless when compared with the deep saturated blacks offered by the traditional wet processes. In short, I was convinced digital technology had more to offer, but even though I considered myself technically well skilled I was still not clear on where I could find the gains required to elevate the quality of my black and white work.

Recently, I was presented with an opportunity to confront the limits of my own knowledge in this area head on; by writing a book about digital black and white photography, which is available on Amazon entitled ‘Understanding Digital Black and White Photography’.

The process of researching and writing this book forced me to work through my own limitations, challenges and assumptions about black and white photography. My aim was to learn how to match (and in some cases exceed), the level of control and quality of finish that is possible with film, through identifying best practice monochromatic workflows using the latest equipment, software, plug-ins and consumables. Calumet Photographic have invited me to share my findings in a series of blog posts that describe my own learning in relation to digital black and white photography.

I began my journey by searching for inspiration, specifically by looking at the work of other photographers starting with the great masters such as Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, David Bailey, Bill Brandt, Robert Capa, Bob Carlos-Clarke, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Don McCullen, Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, Man Ray, Herb Ritts, Alfred Steiglitz and Edward Weston to name but a few, and by seeking out contemporary artists and photographers who used black and white as their primary medium.

I also engaged with practice-based groups via Instagram and Pinterest. It was clear that most analogue based thinking at the visualisation stage of photography was entirely transferable to the digital workflows. For example, that light and shade that characterises and defines an image is every bit as critical. Regardless of format lighting remains the most important element of a black and white image.  Shooting the same subject in different lighting conditions (such as the beach below), created very different aesthetics.


Therefore, recognising the tonal range of the subject and understanding that digital camera sensors have a limited dynamic range, means that data may be lost at the extremes of light and shade. Once the dynamic range of the camera sensor is known, metering can be approached accordingly. For example, the photograph of the logs below demonstrates how the camera usually responds to high contrast scenes. Left to its own devices the camera has measured and interpreted the whole range of tones present within the scene (which exceeds the dynamic range of the sensor), and has selected an average exposure which has clipped detail in both shadows (left) or highlights (right). It was clear to me that an awareness of my cameras dynamic range was essential, and brightness can be thought of as a budget, and spend accordingly on the tonal range of the subject by reading and responding to the cameras metre reading.


Supplementary lighting can be used to reduce the dynamic range of the scene by lifting shadows, but care must be taken when controlling the level of lighting (usually the ratio of fill flash) in order that the subtle tones and textures visible in ambient lighting conditions are not lost or flattened by the introduction of light. The portrait below was exposed for the sunset but the flash was used at a low fill ratio to light the model, preserving facial details and adding catch lights without harsh reflection or loss of highlight details.    


It became clear that choosing the easiest or automated routes to mono (using the cameras built in black and white mode, or single click black and white software solutions) were functional, but limited. To achieve powerful black and white images a certain amount of technical knowledge is required. For my purposes this began by researching and understanding the specification of photographic equipment such as cameras, lenses, computers, monitors, negative scanners, print viewing booths and printers. While selecting the right equipment for the job it is important that variables such as bit depth, colour space and resolution are configured correctly for an optimal black and white workflow.  My next blog post will describe some of the software choices, considerations and workflows that image data passes through to become black and white.

Much more detail on cameras, equipment and exposure for black and white photography is continued in my book ‘Understanding Black and White Digital Photography’.

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